Found! Zombie worms and meat-eating sponges

Eerie: Deep sea creatures such as these inspired the characters in Star Wars and Alien.

Is deep sea research more important than space exploration? “No!” says Elon Musk, despite a rocket crash this week. “Yes!” say scientists racing to map the mysteries of the deep.

In a remote corner of the Texas wilderness this Wednesday, a crowd waited with baited breath as they watched the rocket soar into the skies.

For five tense minutes, the sleek steel Starship climbed to dizzying heights over the Gulf of Mexico. But then something extraordinary happened – the rocket tipped sideways and began to fall.

As quickly as it had risen, the spaceship hurtled downwards. Within seconds, it exploded into the earth, a huge fireball lighting up the sky. The entire flight lasted less than seven minutes.

It may have looked like a catastrophe, but Elon Musk, the maverick entrepreneur behind SpaceX, was delighted.

It was not a crash, he insisted, but rather a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” after a successful data mission.

Indeed, as the dust settled over Texas, he declared triumphantly: “Mars, here we come!”

Yet, as Elon Musk sets his sights on the stars, some experts are warning that we need to pay more attention to what is happening here on Earth.

Since the dawn of space exploration, NASA has sent man to the moon, mapped almost all of Venus and even found underground lakes on the Red Planet. In 2018, governments worldwide spent £80bn on space activities.

Yet for sociologist Amitai Etzioni, space is overhyped. “Deep space – NASA’s favourite turf – is a distant, hostile and barren place, the study of which yields few major discoveries,” he wrote in 2014.

“By contrast, the oceans are nearby, and their study is a potential source of discoveries that could prove helpful for addressing a wide range of national concerns from climate change to disease.”

Scientists’ understanding of the deep ocean remains astonishingly vague. When flight MH370 vanished in 2014, the world was baffled – how could an entire plane disappear under the sea?

But now deep sea scientists are racing to fill the gaps in their knowledge. In 2017, only 6% of the ocean was accurately mapped. Today, despite unprecedented challenges, that figure stands at 20%.

And while aliens remain firmly in the realm of science fiction – for now – there is no shortage of new life being discovered in the deep. Just last year, Australian researchers combing the abyss beneath Antarctica found dozens of “extraordinary” creatures 4,000m below the ice – including zombie worms and meat-eating sponges.

But experts warn that exploring the ocean is about more than just satisfying our curiosity. The ocean is critical to human life – it controls our weather, provides the oxygen we breathe and adds $1.5tn each year to the economy.

Now, it is under threat. When an American explorer broke the record for the deepest human submarine dive ever last year, he found a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

One renowned oceanographer has issued a stark warning. “Far and away, the biggest threat to the ocean is ignorance,” says Sylvia Earle. “But we can do something about that.”

So, is deep sea research more important than space exploration?

Final frontier

Definitely, say some. It is shocking that we know more about outer space than we do about our own planet. As OceanX founder Ray Dalio says,:“the ocean remains humanity’s most important, and most under examined, treasure.” The sea is vital for maintaining human life as we know it, but it is under threat. And if we do not understand how the ocean works, we cannot protect it.

Not at all, say others. There is a reason why space exploration has commanded so much attention and resources – it has led to great advancements in technology, medicine, the economy and even our understanding of our place in the universe. And a deep sea dive could never inspire such feelings of wonderment and amazement as a human walking on the Moon or, maybe one day, Mars.

You Decide

  1. Where would you rather visit – the bottom of the ocean, or Mars?
  2. Is too much money spent exploring space?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have discovered a new creature lurking in the dark while exploring the deep sea in a submarine. Write a diary entry describing the experience and then draw a picture of the creature. Label its features and explain how they help it survive so far underwater.
  2. Write a letter to the leader of your country urging them to commit more resources to exploring the deep sea. How will you persuade them this is a good use of money?

Some People Say...

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Jacques Yves Cousteau (1910 - 1997), French ocean explorer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the ocean could be the site of extraordinary medical breakthroughs. Researchers have already used horseshoe crabs to help develop a test for bacterial contamination and sea urchins to develop test-tube fertilisation. And it was an examination of the eyes of a skate that led to advances in combating blindness. It is likely that finding more previously undiscovered species could lead to more scientific breakthroughs.
What do we not know?
As scientific understanding of the deep sea slowly grows, one main area of debate surrounds how to protect this fragile ecosystem from threats such as deep sea mining. As land deposits are depleted, deep sea mining is expected to commence in international waters in 2025. But experts warn that deep sea creatures, which grow slowly, are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss – one study found that ecosystems on the Pacific Ocean seabed had not recovered even 30 years after experimental mining.

Word Watch

SpaceX
A private rocket and spacecraft company set up by Elon Musk with the ultimate goal of putting humans on Mars. Last week, Musk said he hoped to achieve this goal in four to six years.
NASA
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, founded in 1958. Last year, the US spent $41bn on space related activities. China, the second biggest spender, had a budget of $5.8bn.
Red Planet
A nickname for Mars based on the red soil that covers its surface.
Amitai Etzioni
A German-born Israeli and American academic. He is a professor at George Washington University.
MH370
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared suddenly from air traffic control radar screens in March 2014. Small pieces of debris were not found in the ocean until a year later, and it is still not known exactly what happened to the plane.
Challenges
The biggest obstacle is the ocean itself. Lasers are used to explore space, but they do not work in water. Instead, scientists use sound to map the sea.
Mariana Trench
The trench, located in the Pacific Ocean, is 11,034m deep. Victor Vescovo reached 10,927m beneath the waves, breaking the record by 11m.
Sylvia Earle
An American oceanographer and explorer. A SCUBA diving pioneer, she once held the record for the deepest untethered dive.
OceanX
An organisation set up by billionaire businessman Ray Dalio to explore the ocean and create documentary films. Dalio says he is on a mission to show people that the ocean is more exciting than space.

Subjects

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